When Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ musical premiered on Broadway in 1994 it was understandable that it cleaved fairly slavishly to the smash film, which had only hit cinemas three years previously.
Almost 30 years on, and it maybe seems weird that so much of the plot in this retelling of a centuries-old fairytale hinges on the antics of a sassy talking candelabra, notably not a feature of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 1740 story ‘La Belle et la Bête’. Nothing against the talking candelabra community, who I hold in great respect, but having only the vaguest memories of the film – I appreciate a live-action remake came out in 2017 – it was somewhat baffling that so much of the first half of the musical is given over to Gavin Lee’s Lumière and his clock pal Cogsworth (Nigel Richards), while Shaq Taylor’s Beast, in particular, is barely in it until after the interval.
Redirected by the show’s original choreographer Matt West, this reworked version of the show – which has music by Alen Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice – looks astounding thanks to the still-stunning design by Stanley A Meyer and illusions from Jim Steinmeyer. But there’s not a lot of substance there. The core story – girl meets beast, they fall in love, beast turns out to be hot guy – is endlessly padded out via the light relief characters from the film and long, lavish old-school song and dance numbers that wow with their technical virtuosity while being virtually redundant to the actual story.
Choreographed by West, a song and dance sequence set in a tavern involving rhythmically clanking flagons and vain antagonist Gaston (Tom Senior) singing about how amazing he is was genuinely jaw-dropping. But it’s also frustratingly superfluous, a grandiose exercise in stalling for time.
Genuinely, it is one of the most visually impressive shows I’ve ever seen: even Meyer’s painted backdrops are gorgeous, and that’s to say nothing of the woodcut-style projection of wolves, the gasp-inducing quick changes and the beautiful 3D sets, most notably the dreamy tunnel of night blossoming pink roses. But so much design skill is tossed away at bulking out a story that insists on treating the film like the ur-text for the fairytale.
It does pull together a lot more in the second half, when the plot finally kicks in and Taylor’s fearsome Beast reveals himself to be charmingly awkward and sweetly eager to please. Courtney Stapleton’s sparky heroine Belle is enjoyable, even if the character is fairly generic feisty Disney heroine material. Senior has a fun human cartoon quality as sort-of-villain Gascon. And Lee and Richards are entertaining enough as Lumière and Cogsworth, but they’d be even more entertaining if they were in it half as much. (I was also vaguely irritated by the fact that they harboured zero resentment towards the Beast – the house’s animated objects used to be his servants until he bought a curse down on them all by being a dick to a witch, something they simply take with deferential good grace).
The title song remains an absolute banger, and if you just want two and a half hours of general musical theatre stuff happening, spectacularly, and vaguely in alignment with an old Disney film, then fill your boots. Disney effectively owns this story now, at least as far as musicals go, and while there are many depressing things about that, it unquestionably looks like a dream.